Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab used the platform of an international donor conference on the Syrian crisis in Brussels Tuesday to appeal for protection for Lebanon from sanctions targeting the Syrian regime, particularly those newly implemented by the United States under the Caesar Act.
Speaking by video at the fourth annual Supporting Syria and the Region conference organized by the European Union and United Nations in Brussels, Diab appealed for international assistance to Lebanese people and Syrian refugees in Lebanon battered by the country’s economic crisis and measures imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. An estimated 30 percent of Lebanese and 55 percent of refugees live in extreme poverty, Diab said.
“We’re fully aware that the primary responsibility for recovery rests on the Lebanese themselves,” Diab said.
“Nevertheless, preserving international peace and security against the backdrop of ongoing turmoil in the region…is a shared global responsibility.”
He added, “Therefore, I call on the United Nations, the European Union, and friendly nations to shield Lebanon from the negative repercussions of any sanctions that may be imposed on Syrians, particularly in the context of the Caesar Act, and to ensure that the repercussions do not disrupt our foreign commercial and economic actions, thus jeopardizing out ongoing efforts to get out of the present crisis that the country is in.”
The Caesar Act, which came into effect June 17, threatens sanctions against those who “provide significant support or engage in a significant transaction with the Syrian government or those acting on behalf of Syria, Russia, or Iran.” Some observers have raised concerns that Lebanese industries, including the banking and power sector, could be swept up in the sanctions, further harming Lebanon’s already fragile economy.
US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey did not directly address the question of sanctions in his own speech, but he urged the international community to stand firm against normalizing relations with the Syrian regime, citing “innumerable atrocities, some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
“We are at a critical juncture,” Jeffrey said. “Together the international community must stand firm that there will be no diplomatic or economic normalization of the Assad regime until there is a political solution to the crisis.”
Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer at the London-based Guernica 37 Chambers and founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme, which works on sanctions, wrote that the Caesar sanctions “should not be a problem (for Lebanon) if Lebanese banks are not used to circumvent sanctions on human rights abusers in Syria, or a safe haven for any of them.”
Lebanon is hosting the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with more than 900,000 registered Syrian refuges and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered. Over the past few years, there have been increasing calls by Lebanese politicians for the refugees to go back. Some Syrians have been deported, while larger numbers have gone back on government-organized “voluntary return trips.”
During his speech at the conference Diab also reiterated the Lebanese government position that the return of refugees should not be contingent on a political solution in Syria, a stance that runs contrary to that of the EU and a number of other international actors.
Diab told the conference attendees that the “durable solution” for Syrian refugees lies in a “safe, dignified and non-coercive return to Syria,” and added that “the right of return should not wait for a political settlement of the Syrian conflict.”
EU and UN Refugee Agency officials have maintained that the conditions are not yet safe enough for returns to Syria, particularly since international organizations have not been granted access to all areas of the country to monitor the conditions of returnees.
Yasmin Kayali, co-founder of the Lebanon-based NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which works with refugees, urged the international community during the conference to “reaffirm and maintain the position that Syria is currently not a safe place for return” and to put a halt to deportations of Syrians from Lebanon without a judicial order and due process.
Kayali also called for Lebanon to reverse its stance of preventing Syrian refugees from officially registering with the UN Refugee Agency – a policy that has been in place since 2015 – and to consider offering measures including flexible work permits and a reduction in fees to allow the many Syrians currently living in Lebanon without legal documentation to regularize their status.